My stepfather–who we’ll just call G.–sat across the dinner table from me. My mother sat to my left, silently pushing her food around the plate. I assumed this was because she’d discovered G.’s latest affair and was dealing with it in her usual silent denial. G. discussed what he’d be doing if it were his sophomore year in college instead of mine, Things I Would Have Done with Your Opportunities being a favorite topic of his. I’d only come to town to retrieve a few things I had left behind when I moved into my apartment, and I was eager to get back on the road as soon as possible.
It was early October, 1998. I was 19 years old.
G. was a Machiavellian bully of a parent, though one who preferred to intimidate psychologically rather than physically. My mother moved him in when I was six, and the ink was barely dry on her divorce decree before she married him. As the only boy in the house, I received the brunt of his attention. Everything was subject to scrutiny: my clothes, my taste in music, my prowess with girls, my lack of interest in team sports—all measured by some unspoken standard of masculinity I perpetually failed to live up to. That I earned a black belt in karate at sixteen made no substantial impression. I grew up in a state of quiet but pervasive fear, only finally escaping when I went off to college. I deliberately chose a university elsewhere in the state and came home infrequently.
Though not typically violent, G. hit me three times before I reached the age of 10. Once hard enough to make my gums bleed.
He largely ignored my little sister. This is the only reason she survived this period of our lives.
I finished my meal, but when I went to clear my plate my mother took it instead. “I’ll get this,” she said. “You just relax.”
Alarm bells went off in my head. Each family member was responsible for his/her dirty dishes, an inviolate rule for as long as I could remember.
She cleared not just my plate but the entire table, portioning the leftovers into Tupperware containers with astonishing economy of speed. G. sipped at his beer and made a show of appearing nonchalant. Some weird, nervous energy encoded his body language, and I found it vaguely threatening. Every lizard-brain instinct told me to flee, but before I could conjure an excuse my mother returned to her seat.
“There’s something we need to tell you,” G. said. “It’s about your father.”
My father? My father had become persona non grata years ago. During the divorce he battled viciously in court to avoid owing child support, a prolonged conflict which left my sister and I with smoking blast craters marring the landscape of our youth. When the courts decided against him, he abandoned his children in favor of his new wife.
“We’ve never been completely honest with you,” my stepfather continued. He stared me straight in the eyes, his poker face rapidly abandoning him. “But we think it’s time you know the truth. You’re not really his son. You’re mine.”
The world fell away from me like a free-fall ride at an amusement park.
G. grinned as though he’d won a fucking prize.
My mother said nothing.
When I didn’t respond, G. kept talking: about his affair with my mother; about the anecdotal evidence that “proved” I was his biological son; how my various aunts and uncles had been aware for years. Something about how this would “free” me from the pain of the divorce.
I wasn’t really listening. I felt like a freshly branded cow, a smoking MINE seared into my flesh. My heart beat against the ragged edges of broken feelings: betrayal, violation, confusion.
And so much anger. I wanted to glove my fists in the grinning bastard’s blood.
“I have to go,” I said, grabbing my leather jacket off the chair. No one tried to stop me.
Here’s where I lose the plot a bit. Everything was scattered, my head as big a jumble as a bag of Scrabble letters. I drove aimlessly, circling around the freeways, taking whatever off-ramp or side street presented itself. The city seemed both starkly real and yet grotesquely unreal, as though I’d stumbled into some Twilight Zone simulacrum of my life.
I stopped at payphones, attempting to get in touch with my friends, but it was Saturday and they were all out. I left them rambling, nonsensical messages.
Eventually, running low on gas and inertia, I found myself at the beach. The early autumn days were still running late, and the evening sun was just setting. I sat down on the sand to watch it, jacket pulled around me like a turtle shell. It was just another sunset, the exact same image I’d seen countless times, and yet so stunningly beautiful that for a moment I was able to forget about everything. One last explosion of color before the world finished turning to gray.
My crappy little 35MM Kodak was in my jacket pocket, and I snapped a few pictures.
Later I would pick myself up off the beach, drive back to school, and with the help of my friends, begin the process of reassembling myself, fearing for years afterward that crucial pieces were irretrievably lost.
I would not speak to any member of my family, save my sister, for months.
I would learn that G. had been threatening to leave my mother for his current mistress; she had hoped that allowing him to openly claim me as his offspring would prevent him from leaving her. But G. would move out before Christmas, and they would be divorced by springtime.
And before graduation, I would publicly–and cathartically–disown him.
But those events were in the future, still waiting to happen. For now I just sat there, alone on an empty shelf of beach, watching the sun slowly dive into the Pacific as bit by bit the earth carried me away from it.